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At Columbia, Intimidation Probe Sparks a Debate over Free Speech

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On a cold, rainy Friday at Columbia University, students clutch copies of the day’s campus newspaper — with a front-page story, again, about alleged intimidation in the Middle East Studies department. The latest development? Charges that members of a committee appointed by the university to investigate whether pro-Palestinian faculty have intimidated pro-Israel students are themselves biased.

Since late October, when the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, screened “Columbia, Unbecoming,” a documentary featuring student allegations of intimidation, the issue has become a major controversy.

University president Lee Bollinger last week announced the formation of a committee to investigate allegations in the film — such as the charge that assistant professor Joseph Massad asked an Israeli student who served in the army, “How many Palestinians have you killed?”

The film prompted an outcry both from those concerned about possible pressure on students and from the professors charged with intimidation and their supporters, who claim academic freedom is under attack.

In fact, the backlash to the film has become so hostile that some say it underscores the antagonistic culture the pro-Israel students had questioned to begin with.

The focus of the debate appears to have moved from the actual charges at hand to the issue of freedom of speech in academia.

Columbia’s controversy is a microcosm of events taking place on college campuses across the country.

Since the violent Palestinian intifada began more than four years ago, campuses have become a battleground of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Charges of anti-Israel activity often are countered with charges of censorship — which, at a university, is akin to blasphemy.

The irony in the Columbia case is the idea that Jewish students could feel intimidated at a university that has a robust Jewish life and is located in a city steeped in Jewish culture.

In the middle of it all, Columbia students are riled up — but many say the controversy is overblown, even if they’re unclear about the facts.

“I totally, 100 percent believe in academic freedom,” said Walker Young, 23, a senior, working checking ID’s at a first-year dorm. But making students feel uncomfortable — “that’s not academic freedom. That’s just kind of bullying.”

“My take on it is, it has become a ‘he said, she said’ kind of thing,” said Young, who has followed the issue fairly closely.

At the same time, Young and others are disappointed by the university’s response. In appointing a committee, Bollinger “didn’t provide an answer to either the Jewish faction who feels oppressed or the so-called teachers who are doing the oppressing,” he said.

The committee hopes to provide answers early next year.

However, some have raised concerns about the fitness of committee members who signed a petition calling on Columbia to divest its holdings in Israel, or who have close relationships with faculty members under investigation.

In addition, the David Project questions the validity of an internal probe when the university conducted an investigation into anti-Israel bias last year and concluded there was none.

But the fact that the committee is headed by Floyd Abrams, a visiting professor and a respected First Amendment lawyer, has given the university committee credibility, some say.

“I don’t think that he would allow for rubber-stamping,” said Wayne Firestone, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group of 26 Jewish groups that work on campus, including the David Project.

At the same time, Abrams’ role is unclear, said Firestone, who puts the burden on Columbia to make sure that students’ complaints are heard in an impartial manner.

“I have no doubt that” the committee “is fit,” said Susan Brown, the university’s assistant vice president for public affairs.

The film has forced the university to examine its grievance procedures, and it found that they aren’t as accessible as they should be, Brown said. The ad hoc committee created to investigate the issue is intended to become a permanent fixture for addressing issues of academic freedom.

In the meantime, interviews with students demonstrated another factor in the debate: a colossal level of confusion.

For example, Ranya Saadawi, 18, a student at Barnard, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia, seemed to think that being anti-Semitic was the same as being anti-Israel.

Still, if a professor is anti-Israel, “that shouldn’t really affect his position,” said Saadawi, who is Arab. “Should an anti-Taiwanese professor not be able to teach?”

If a professor is “being discriminatory or giving bad grades because you’re pro-Israel,” that would be inappropriate, she said.

But there often is a fine line between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity, which makes it difficult for students who feel threatened to pinpoint the problem and argue their case.

Freshman Joey Simonson, 18 and Jewish, said a socialist meeting on campus showed him “how quickly the lines between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism can be blurred.”

The 30 or so participants, many of whom seemed too old to be students, said Zionists had helped perpetrate the Holocaust, Simonson said.

Simonson said he found such statements, and others at the meeting, “relatively offensive.”

But “in general, I think people here have a relatively decent understanding of the Middle East,” he said. “It’s a very open environment here.”

Simonson, who attended a Solomon Schechter day school on Long Island, was wearing a T-shirt with Hebrew letters for the Israeli military unit in which his cousin serves. He said he doesn’t feel nervous displaying his feelings for Israel on campus.

He spoke to JTA just after leaving his Arabic class, which is taught by a pro-Zionist Lebanese Christian, he said. But he noted that his professor is the exception for being pro-Israel in the Middle East & Asian Languages & Cultures department, known as MEALAC, the department that is the focus of the complaints.

Michael Levinson, 21 and Jewish, is a MEALAC major.

“I found what the students talked about in the film to be completely contradictory to any experiences I had had,” he said.

He ascribes the whole mess to miscommunication.

“You can feel intimidated without someone intimidating you,” he said, disagreeing with the students while defending their right to protest.

Levinson says he has seen constructive dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his courses. As for his own views, he said he is still sorting them out.

“After having started MEALAC, I think that my upbringing had been very pro-Israel biased,” he said.

Mike Bai, 21, said most people on campus find the accusations against the professors hard to believe, and therefore dismiss the controversy.

“Everything could be offensive” to someone, he said.

The fact that the university has embraced Jewish life, making kosher food available on campus, for example, undercuts the students’ claim, he said.

“College is about being exposed to new ideas” and rethinking “your own belief system,” he said.

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